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Doctors, dietitians and educators have long been warning anyone who would listen about the dangers of energy drinks, especially for children. While initially the warnings were over the obvious effects of their high caffeine and sugar content, growing evidence shows these drinks affect the body differently than, say, sugary coffee. Energy drinks are now linked to heart, nerve and stomach issues.
It’s a problem for us in the UAE with our high incidence of obesity and diabetes, and where large quantities of energy drinks are consumed. A recent study of UAE students across four college campuses by researchers at the Sharjah Women’s College Health Sciences department found that 85% of Emirati college students surveyed consume energy drinks, and about one in five do so every day. According to the study, the students reported side-effects including headaches, blurred vision, nervousness, excessive thirst and difficulty sleeping.
Now, adding fuel to the fire of the anti-energy drink lobby is a new study from a Yale University research center that indicates a single serving (710ml) of energy drink could harm your heart.
The link between energy drinks, heart rate and diabetes
It is estimated that in the US, 20,000 trips to the emergency department are associated with energy drink consumption every year. To figure out why, we need to look at the ingredients, from the obvious culprits like high sugar and caffeine levels, to those stealthy, lesser-known ingredients that exacerbate their effects.
When it comes to caffeine, people suffering heart disease or who take stimulants or caffeine-based drugs are usually warned to avoid energy drinks. This is because multiple studies have shown that energy drinks can increase blood pressure and heart rate and decrease important markers of blood vessel function, which can be bad for heart health. Consumption of large quantities of caffeine is also associated with trouble in sleeping, lack of concentration, anxiety and digestive issues.
As for sugar, we know that its empty calories can lead to weight gain and associated health risks such as diabetes and heart disease, which makes the elevated blood pressure from high caffeine intake even more worrying.
What about the mystery ingredients?
A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association indicates that the body handles caffeine differently when it is mixed with other ingredients found in energy drinks. After giving one group regular caffeinated sodas and another group energy drinks, researchers found that both groups had elevated blood pressure afterwards. However, the blood pressure of those who had consumed the energy drinks remained higher for six hours longer than the other group. The study indicates that it is the additional ingredients that are responsible for the effects. These commonly include herbals, such as ginseng, and taurine – an amino acid purported to increase energy and originally extracted from bull semen.
Solutions and alternatives
Last year’s ‘sin tax’ – 100% VAT – on energy drinks sold in the UAE should soon be bearing fruits based on similar international initiatives. In China, for example, an Asian Development Bank study found the 20% tax on sugary beverages was associated with a 3% reduction in overweight and obesity prevalence. In another positive move locally, the Sharjah Municipality banned the sale of energy drinks to children under 16 and made it an offence for food outlets to mix energy drinks with other beverages.
But, of course, we should also take responsibility for our own health. Ensuring you have adequate sleep, eat well and get a bit of exercise will all increase your energy levels, with a mood boost thrown in!